Messages from 2004 – no one is taking a punt any more

I have several large ring binder folders that are stuffed with clipped newspaper articles, book reviews, my handwritten notes from courses and other printed material, mainly pieces on writing that I’ve found online. Sometimes when my mind is too buzzy to settle on fiction when I’m in bed at night, before sleeping, I pull out something from a file. A Paris Review interview, a piece on point of view technique or voice.

Last night I re-read an article I printed out in 2011, but it’s from 2004. When I first read it in 2011, I highlighted some lines in green. Last night when I read it again, I highlighted other different lines in orange. Just seeing what I’d highlighted 2 years ago was interesting. The whole article is interesting. It’s called What’s the story with Australian fiction? written by Jane Sulllivan (link below.)

In it, David Marr lists his pet hates with debut fiction: desperate ‘slightly insane’ characters wandering St Kilda beach; the novel written in the ‘ectoplasm voice… all so quivering and hypersensitive. It’s not robust to contain humour, laughter would break it apart.’ The ‘plotless novel where the only drama comes from the narrator working towards self-awareness.’ This idea of humour is something I’d like to talk about in another post sometime. Humour is in my head at the moment.

And then this. THIS:

The Australian novel has come in for a pasting of late. Various commentators, including Marr, have asked why it isn’t more relevant to our present political and social climate.’ [My first green highlighted bit.]

In 2004 Australian readers were staying loyal to a few big names (Monsieur Winton, natch). Popular novels were ‘still selling well’, as were some genre titles (crime, romance, fantasy, children’s fiction.) (Nikki Gemmell’s ‘odd surprise monster hit’ The Bride Stripped Bare is mentioned.)

A quotation from Michael Heyward of Text:

We need to do much more to create a sense of occasion about Australian fiction.

And now my first orange highlighted bit:

Meanwhile, mid-list titles languish, while lesser-known and unknown writers, particularly those of a literary rather than a commercial bent, are having a hard time winning readers. Yet this is the kind of work that in the past made the reputations of writers such as Winton, Peter Carey, Helen Garner or David Malouf.

‘These are days when you publish a terrific book and it sells 1000 or 2000 copies,’ says Picador publisher Nikki Christer. ‘Five years ago, the same terrific book would have sold 20,000 copies.’

FUCK.

‘It’s the most awful thing when you publish a book you think is wonderful and nobody seems to see in it what you see in it. It happens all the time.’

DOUBLE FUCK.

I’m not surprised they said this. I’m surprised that this stuff was being said at that time. If they were saying that then, how much worse are things now? What are they saying now? Are they saying: we can’t take on new writers, just forget it? It makes even my pig-headed determination waver a little.

From Andrew Wilkins, publisher of Australian Bookseller and Publisher Magazine:

There are two things we are missing out on. Good people who aren’t being published; and good people who are published, but drop like a stone.

This was in 2004.

In 2004, the small market for lit fiction was ‘shrinking. Several publishers have cut back on their fiction lists. Simon & Schuster Australia announced two months ago it would stop taking on new writers. A huge bottleneck of manuscripts is forming in the offices of harassed literary agents and those few publishers who will still look at unsolicited material. Very, very few of these works will ever reach a bookshop.’

There are no surprises in that last sentence. This has always been the case. It’s always been that there have been more mss in the world, trying to find a home, than berths available at the publishers. And this, again nothing new here:

It’s likely that many of these works are not ready, or not good enough, for publication. But some people in the book industry are worried that the gates are closing to the point where even the best new fiction will find it very hard to squeeze through.

Even the best new fiction will find it very hard to squeeze through.

I’ve highlighted the above in 2013 orange.

From lit agent Lyn Tranter: ‘It’s absolutely bloody crazy. I’ve never seen it quite so chronic as it is at the moment.’ And THIS: ‘She believes that some publishers have been told “from above” not to take on new Australian fiction unless they are sure they can make it a bestseller.

2004 people! If this was true then, it’s only more so now.

Q How can a publisher be sure they can make a book a bestseller?

A They can’t. So they won’t take a chance on anything.

From lit agent Jenny Darling: ‘There’s so little enthusiasm within publishing houses for creating fiction and finding ways to sell it. They say that people don’t buy it. My view is there is a complicated series of gatekeepers between the writer and the reader and no one is taking the punt any more.

Darling goes on:

If a first novel has a gripping, sexy theme, people will go for it. But what we hear a lot from publishers is ‘it’s a bit quiet’ which really means it might be absolutely brilliantly written, but they don’t know how to persuade their marketing people, who have to persuade the booksellers.

I’ve heard this recently, that publishers are looking for something not ‘so quiet.’ Where then is the chance for quieter literary fiction, that doesn’t have whizz bang car chases and drama. It’s enough to, I don’t know. Something.

Some data: ‘The US publishes about 17,000 novels a year; Australia published just 124 works of adult fiction in 2003. Allowing for population difference, we would have to publish about 10 times as many titles just to keep up.’

In 2004, HarperCollins had cut its backlist by 40 percent.  Random House then-publisher Jane Palfreyman said the company had not reduced its fiction publishing program:

Perhaps we’ve been getting more fiction through agents… The novels we have been saying ‘no’ to haven’t been hitting the mark. The idea that publishers would knock back a great novel because it wouldn’t sell many copies is insane. I’m longing to read something fantastic.

Some more data: ‘No one knows exactly why Australian readers seem less interested in their own fiction. It might be part of a worldwide trend towards a less literate culture. A new US survey has revealed that fewer than half on Americans over 18 now read novels, short stories, plays or poetry. The decline is accelerating: numbers fell by 5 per cent between 1982 and 1992, and by 14 per cent in the following decade.

Mark Rubbo refers to the non-fiction explosion. Amanda Lohrey says she believes people are ‘getting their narrative fix from cinema and television’:

When people turn to books, it’s often for information in an agreeably packaged form. I also think that people are jaded with fictional narrative; at a certain time in their lives they begin to feel they’ve seen all the moves. They want to know that something is true.

Hah. We are getting warmer. I’ve noticed it’s harder to engage with fiction as I get older. I do feel I’ve seen all the moves and it takes something original, fresh and rare to pull me into a novel and make me experience the reading, tumbling into the rabbit hole without thought of anything else, like I did in my teens and twenties. I read years ago that Helen Garner felt ‘saturated in fiction’ (or similar) – as if she’d read all she could manage of novels, and this was why she was exclusively reading NF (and writing more of it.) At that time I got what she was saying.

As Lohrey said, people want to know something is true. But I still think people yearn for emotional truth above all else, and this can be found in fiction maybe even more so than in NF.

Tranter again:

There is not that word of mouth and excitement about Australian novels there once was. Many books are put out that are not ready and haven’t lived up to the hype. I’m terrified we’re going to get to a shocking situation where many people won’t bother reading an Australian book, just as they won’t bother to see an Australian film.

On writing classes, Tranter says it’s tragic that classes are ‘churning out people who are led to believe they are going to be published’ and Darling ‘complains that some teachers “seem to have no idea of what’s publishable.” ‘

The answer? What can be done to bring readers back to Australian fiction? ‘Edit it better, say some. Market it better, say others. Get advance copies to bookshops and influential people, so they will read it before it comes out.’

And some more data, or a single datum really: In 2001 – 2002, government support for literature was tiny with only 0.5 per cent of the total arts budget allocated. No surprises there either. But where’s the rest of it? The other 99.5 percent of the money. Visual arts? Performing arts? Ah, performing arts. That’s the stuff that makes money. Ticket money. Bums on seats. But the government doesn’t make money from it do they? Don’t private companies make those profits in much the same way that publishers make their profits? I don’t know anything about it.

At the end of the article, there’s a snippet of positivity, even if it’s a little deluded.

Other observers hope the problem will solve itself. Publishing is a cyclical business, they point out – sooner or later, we will rediscover the power of the imagination and homegrown literary fiction will be in demand again.

Actually it’s fully deluded. As if things will ‘right themselves’ to some sort of natural order.

As my 1970s self would say: AS IF.

‘Meanwhile, even the most trenchant critics of new Australian fiction still passionately want it to be read.’ David Marr has the last word:

We keep reading our own fiction because when it’s poor it’s disappointing, but when it’s good nothing matters more. If people are reading less, they are still alert for what’s terrific. We want voices: we want our own stories told.

And that’s lovely and I believe it to be true, and I also believe there are publishers in Australia, the smaller independent houses, who are taking punts and are totally behind new fiction and local fiction. There’s a clutch of them in the west, and in Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane. Places like Sleepers, Affirm, Margaret River Press, Fremantle Press, UWAP, UQP, Black Inc, Giramondo, Spinifex, Kill Your Darlings and Text. For a comprehensive list, go here to SPNC. Where it’s more about the quality of the product than the bottom-line, or there is maybe more equal weighting than at the larger full-on commercial presses. This is where the hope is for people like me I suppose, and writers who are concerned with producing great writing, great stories that aren’t über commercial, that are written from the heart with both eyes closed, with no dollar signs behind the eyelids. The people who are doing this not as a job but as a vocation, an obsession. And that.

And you know what I just noticed? There is NOTHING in this article about e-books. Yep, that’s right. From wiki: ‘electronic paper was incorporated first into the Sony Librie (released in 2004) and Sony Reader (2006), followed by the Amazon Kindle, a device which, upon its release in 2007, sold out within five hours.’ So this article was published just on the cusp of e-bookery. It was like everyone was standing around on the beach talking books, with no idea there was a tidal wave just over the horizon.

Note – on e-books, interesting reading here. When I googled to see when they started to get popular I was surprised to read the history. The idea’s been around a long time. Wiki page on e-books.

Original article What’s the story with Australian fiction by Jane Sullivan, August 14, 2004 in The Age.

6 thoughts on “Messages from 2004 – no one is taking a punt any more

  1. Really enjoyed that…… I’m a bit depressed but……… I kinda knew that it was tough here….. so not surprised…… just keep moving, someone said.
    Terry

    1. Hi Terry yes it is a bit depressing, I think I depressed myself with that post. But it’s real isn’t it, and best to try to be realistic about some things. I think the thing to not care about it is with the writing. As you say, just keep moving. Just keep doing it. I don’t think the answer is to stop – how can that be? – and I also don’t think the answer is to try to change what you’re writing to try to ‘fit’ into what the scene is at any one moment. We have to write what our hearts tell us to, don’t we?

      Thanks for reading.

      1. Agreed. Developing a thick skin while still being able to take good advice is an interesting thing for me. I got two rejection letters today and one was quite a nasty response to my suggestion that they find a way to pay their contributors…. my fault, should not have brought it up but it was an Australian mag and I hate the current attitude of expecting writers to work for nothing……. because it’s art!
        Needless to say they don’t want to print my story…… have to learn to keep my mouth shut.
        Love your stuff….. be happy and prosper.
        Terry

      2. Sorry to hear about that Terry, it is so tough out there. And this pay the writers thing, well I agree with and support payment for writers but don’t get into the conversations about it because it sucks energy and also, writing fiction has always been sometimes unpaid, in the beginning. Novel royalties have always mostly been minimal. Journalism is the paid writing, but fiction… historically it’s been a bit different. So I think for people to start blending the two in terms of expectations and getting all huffy when publications pay little or nothing, I think, well you can choose not to submit. You can choose not to write fiction. Also I think it’s the wrong time for people to get all activisty about it, because all the power is with publishers and publications. They know we are desperate to get published and they have a freaking oversupply of stuff to choose from.

        Mmm, that was a bit of a rant. This is why I don’t get involved in these conversations! 🙂 Politics too, can’t go there, sucks energy that I want to keep for writing!

      3. True, I suppose I just leave it to others, lazy I suppose! But I do think it can be wasted effort (like so many protest activities) and as you found, it can piss the people with power off. I’m happy to piss people off, but not those I might want something from one day, even if that’s just fair consideration. The status quo never really changes, does it?

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